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I'm frequently asked for my musical opinions and their justification - usually by people who wonder why I'm so negative about modern musical trends and artists. So, for all those people - and anyone interested - I've presented the following potted history of modern music.

I've tried to present this information in the most simple and objective way possible - though personal preferences (and prejudices) will invariably arise in its presentation. I'm tempted to add a "no correspondence will be entered into" provision - because so much of musical criticism is simply opinion-based - but am happy to clarify any of the material presented here, or begrudgingly receive the acknowledged corrections of others.pic by Man Ray


Classical music - as it is commonly defined and acknowledged - is a cross-over of religious and secular music, derived in a series of progressions based on developments in both musical score (or writing style) and instrumentation. It's main developments can be characterised as follows:

- Medieval music: This was usually choral or with sparse, simple instrumentation. The music was simple - usually monophonic or with harmonies based around the 3rd and 4th intervals, and no chord changes. This simplicity was based around an aversion to more complex harmonies - due to Pythagorean influences on musical thinking, and the resultant incompatabilities between unequally tempered instruments.

- True classical music: This was made possible through the development of the "equally tempered scale", an artificial system devised to overcome the barriers noted previously. It's proponent was J. S. Bach - a master of musical invention and improvisatory skill. Complex harmonies, orchestration and key changes thus become possible.

- Romantic music: I use this loose (and probably inaccurate) description to describe the musical heirs and successors to Bach - chiefly (in order) Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - and their contemporaries. There is a severence of classical from its religious origins to first political patronage (through royalty and heads of state), then private patronage. The development of the piano and other equally rigorous (and loud) instruments, together with the continual expansion of the orchestra, set the pace for a spiralling excess beyond aesthetic necessity.

- Early 20th century music: This was fueled by the introduction of non-chromatic/scalar tones, such as in the works by Debussy - an off-shoot of the "orientalism"that arose with the discovery and embrace of non-Western influences. This is, personally, my favourite classical music - as employed by Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel at their creative peak. Stravinsky also indulged in a "neo-classical"phase, where he borrowed from the musical influences of past centuries.

- Serialism and beyond: Serialism - the presentation of all twelve musical tones, in apparently random sequences - set the tone for the deconstruction of most preceding classical forms. In turn, it set the stage for the introduction of concepts such as "minimalism" (through Cage, Reich and Glass) and "musique concrete"or pure sound/noise, mainly by Stockhausen.


Jazz grew out of the piano music of the bordellos and dance halls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed with the spiritual influences of the black chuches. Much of its early development was based around the piano, so I will avoid mentioning jazz styles which were simply developments in styles of piano playing - such as ragtime, stride and boogie (woogie):

- Trad (1920s): To be somewhat unfair, this is "old people's jazz" (unless you're a revivalist such as Wynton Marsalis). Trumpets, trombones and sparse (though loud) percussion predominate - in a parade style.

- Swing (1930s-40s): This is the music of the big bands, where instrumental and vocal virtuosity first developed.

- Bebop (1950s): This style of music is characterised by fast melodies and chord changes (based around the popular songs of the era), and was initiated by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk.

- Cool jazz (late 1950s): This was slow(er), stately and modal-based, with few chord changes. First pioneered by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, it was later championed on the west coast of the USA.

- Free jazz (1960s): This type of music employed the intentional foresaking of formal rhythmic and melodic structures - and is not popular in my book.

- Fusion (late 1960s-mid 1970s): The crossover between jazz and rock music, was initiated by Miles Davis' work with players such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin (all of whom fronted successful fusion bands after playing with him).


I see no reason - for now - to separate these somewhat-diverse musical styles from one another:

- Delta blues: Vocally, this grew from the black plantation songs and sprituals of the southern USA. Instrumentally, guitarists such as Robert Johnson developed styles that continue to influence today's players.

- Chicago blues: This was essentially electrified blues, developed during the mass migration of blacks north to find work in the auto industry. It's development was aided by clubs and a viable (though segregated) recording industry.

- "Brill building"/pop(ular) music: White music, in contrast, was quite different - lightweight, contrived, sanitised and manufactured as a product for stage, screen, radio and gramaphone. This trend continued well into the 1960s, despite (or, perhaps even aided by) the "birth or rock and roll". It bacame pop music when the affluent 1950's brought the discovery and exploitation of the teenage market.

- Rock/rock'n'roll: This was essentially popular black (or "race") music for white people, created not for exploitation but because of "colour bars" imposed by their respective radio stations. Rock music became popular due to the viability of the amplified small band as a viable working unit. The introduction of extreme amplification, drugs and too many late nights spawned the creation of heavy rock (not to mention disco).

- Soul/funk/disco: Soul music was the black equivalent to rock - without its relentless insistence on 4/4 timing. It mutated into funk through changes in the rhythm section playing brought about by people like James Brown - then degenerated into disco through mindless simplicity and endless repetition of the drummer's hi-hat on the off beat.

- Progressive rock: This was the off-shoot of other elements and influences - more spiritual (including non-Christian and drug-related) music, the phenomenon of the rock "festival" and increasing instrumental virtuosity (including classical training) amongst musicians. This type of music remains a favourite for "heads" and keen musicians, alike.

- Punk/new wave: This phenomenon was, in part, a cultural backlash against the various musical excesses of the 1970s (prog-rock, L.A. or stadium rock, disco, etc.) but was equally a cynical marketing exercise. Either way, the musical and lyrical content was stripped down to a bare minimum and lots of people who otherwise would not have had a musical career did so because they looked and sounded right for the part.

- Techno/dance: Inspired by the meanderings of Stockhausen, various groups in the 1970s such as Tangerine Dream started to use the newly-developed synthesisers instead of guitars as their main tool. This inspired later bands such as Kraftwerk to produce minimalist electronic pop - which, by strange a twist of fate, became popular in the black ghettos of post-industrial Chicago.


The vast majority of music around today is simply a reversion to - or, at best, an off-shoot of - one of more of the above styles. There are, however, a few initially-novel forms, including the following:

World music: This was derived from the (first) non-Western influences and (later) acoustic orientations that appeared in jazz fusion music. Along the way, it acquired minimalist overtones. It is legitimate only in its purer forms - even then it smacks of tokenism, being produced for the quaint listening habits of the bored, Western bourgeoisie.

New age music: This is, in turn, a derivation (and denigration) from world music, aided by the more obvious excesses of progressive rock (though without the instrumental virtuosity). In truth, this is crass, childish (rather than childlike) soundscaping, assembled by pretentious musicians who spurn conventional musical form in a quest for the new age listening audience.

Sample-based music: This is simply an off-shoot of techno music, using samples instead of drum-machines and other instruments. The widespread availability of samplers, computers and music- related software has considerably broadened the ranks of people calling themselves 'musicians', without giving them the skills and talent to justify the label.

Rap: Despite several attempts to legitimise this as an off-shoot of either jazz or soul music, I don't regard it as music at all. It seems to be derived from commercials and advertising slogans - mixed with punk and black vocal elements, to highlight the acute absence of both musical and lyrical sensibility in its proponents and followers.

Grunge: Since the "Friends"show on TV - about a group of 30+ year olds acting like teenagers - was so popular , somebody got the idea to do this with music. Hence we have teenage angst and despair immortalised by a group of adults who should know better.


I think that modern music has long ceased to be a potent social force in our culture - if it ever was one. Like the acquisition of secondary sexual characteristics in puberty, our primary musical tastes somehow appear without rhyme, reason or justification - based on whatever we choose to identify with, in our search for individuality. The rank commercialism that appears to drive the music industry will, as ever, distort the musical message and alienate those who see through its operations.

As a result there is a growing insularity of musical taste by the general public. Aided, first by the development of the compact disc and now the internet and other emerging technologies such as MP3, people have become more content to confirm their existing musical preferences than to gain new ones. We find an obsession with the quest for the "classic"styles, genres, artists and performances of the past - instead of identifying, assimilating and synthesising them into something new. Then again, this isn't totally surprising - given the high level of creative impotence amongst most music makers.

The music industry alternately clamps down on emerging technologies as a scourge on its viability and sells meaningless trash to the public for no other reason than its sales potential as commercial "product". As a result, music may not necessarily be dead, but the stagnation and lack of growth or direction is increasing at an alarming rate. And this is certainly something that I can sense and feel, as a musician.


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URL: http://homepages.tig.com.au/~avanstar
Alex Van Starrex